Being plugged in is part of modern life. We depend on our smart devices to pull information from the vast regions of the internet. But did we sign up for our devices to pull information from us?
Sure, we share some information with apps and devices. Out exercising, many of us share our vital stats with our fitness device. We let our GPS app locate where we are so we can get where we’re going. All these uses are fine because we’re aware of them. The problem comes when our devices are monitoring us and we don’t even know it.
Enter the recent lawsuit by the Fair Trade Commission against TV company Vizio. According to the suit, Vizio has been pulling some Orwellian stunts through its TVs since as early as 2014. It turns out, while we’re watching our TVs, our TVs are watching us.
Why? It comes down to dollars. There’s big money in smart, internet-connected TVs, and we’re not just talking sale price. Companies who manufacture and sell the smart TVs aren’t just selling hardware. Through the smart functionality of the TV sets, they can sell access to you to advertisers, and they can sell aggregated viewer data to giant data brokerages. It’s big business for smart TV makers.
This type of data sharing is not unique in the smart TV world, nor is it in itself illegal. The problem with Vizio’s shenanigans is that they were conducted without consumers’ consent, and the data was being stored indefinitely. Both of these practices are no-nos. And they affected over 11 million consumers.
The FTC has not been sympathetic – the lawsuit the agency filed sought significant monetary damages against Vizio.
So, to what extent did Vizio pull consumer data? The answer may shock you. New TVs sold in 2014 came fitted with devices that continuously tracked what consumers were watching. The company collected data through automatic content recognition software that was enabled by default.
But the data siphoning wasn’t limited to just the new TVs; the FTC’s complaint alleges that Vizio also remotely patched older models of TVs that didn’t ship with the ACR software so that they, too, could collect and report data on what consumers were watching. This retrofitting practice extended as far back as TVs manufactured in 2010.
And there’s still more. The complaint continues to allege that Vizio’s ACR software periodically collects other information about the TV, including IP address, wired and wireless MAC addresses, WiFi signal strength, nearby WiFi access points, and other items. Add all of these things up and you have an incredibly robust picture of who is watching what, where, and when.